This series of blogs began on May 29th and has continued in wvery blog since. In the first of these I translated the blessings of Jesus from Matthew 5, and meditated on them as a spiritual exercise.

Happiness for those who have clean hearts:

they will see God.

So what is a dirty heart? From a biblical point of view, it is a heart with affection for idols. That begins with the story of Adam and Eve who make idols of themselves (you will be like gods!) through the incident of the golden calf, to the psychologically more subtle narrative of David’s lust for Bathsheba and its murderous consequence. Whatever becomes more important than the one God, is an idol. A dirty heart is one whose affection makes some thing, person, pleasure or even duty, demonic, letting loose into the person and the world a contaminating spiritual influence, which conceals the goodness of God.

If that sounds such a heavy mode of going  astray, that we imagine ourselves immune to its power, then we should also understand that an inordinate affection for triviality can also be idolatry: we can become so addicted to a diet of social media that we neglect matters of real importance. The person who can neglect the human being standing by their side to connect with their smart phone is a common instance of this idolatry. And of course, more generally, allowing all manner of ugliness to wash through us daily from any sort of media, is a persistent danger to our hearts.

A more serious idolatry, common in our society, is our affection for the role of consumer, which the capitalism of our time urges upon us. Clearly this involves an affection for possessions and consumables, which in turn fuels a lust for the wealth to make consumption possible. This treadmill in its turn gives people an affection for power, personal, social and political, without which they might not have the means to consume

These idolatries are dirty affections which possess and degrade the heart, depriving it of clean affection for animals, people, the universe and the creator.

For those of us who suffer from idolatry, a moment in which our hearts are seduced by true affection, can be revelatory. This can happen through genuine love, through goodwill, through beauty, through religion, through the depth of meaning in art, through an encounter with death, through comedy and its purifying laughter, through anything that breaks through the scum of addictive affection. At that point we experience goodness, we “see” God.

And it makes us happy, so happy that we may desire nothing less than that happiness  as the purpose of our living. And if we are resolute, we can allow the happiness to convert us, a process which includes evicting the dirty affections from our heart. Few of us succeed altogether in this, leaving us with divided hearts, which want sometimes to hold on to our idols at the expense of God’s goodness. But we know, now, that our dirty affections are destructive whereas our clean affections are nourishing. We want to have clean hearts, we want to see God.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

In this series of blogs I am trying to understand the blessings of Jesus, which I translated in my blog of May 29, 2018, and have taken singly in subsequent blogs.

Happiness for those who show mercy:

mercy will be shown to them.

“Will be shown” – This kind of passive phrase in biblical writings usually refers to God who is not named out of reverence, but (as I will argue) here it may also refer to the habit of mutual forgiveness and compassionate care in the Christian assemblies.

The Greek ”eleémones” is used in the Gospels to refer to forgiveness of the neighbour, and to caring love, especially for the needy. On the one hand therefore it means restraint of condemnation, punishment and revenge; on the other it means the activity of forgiveness and practical compassion.

The Gospel narrative is full of instances of Jesus’ mercy, especially towards those designated as “sinners” by the righteous, and of his active care of the sick and the possessed. It is also clear in Matthew’s gospel that his announcement of God’s mercy was considered scandalous by the religious authorities. Jesus also announced in vivid language that the mercy of God would not be available to those who have no mercy on their fellow human beings. We do not need to take his words about weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth too literally, or to conclude that the hard-hearted will never be forgiven, but we would be right to worry about the ultimate futures of those responsible for separating children from their parents at the USA/ Mexican border. They’d be well- advised to fireproof their asses.

Jesus’ blessing, however, promises happiness to merciful people, when the evidence suggests that his acts of mercy aroused the hatred that led to his murder, and that in many modern societies merciful people are mocked, patronised and often denounced as harmful. “Do-gooders” is a term of abuse. How then should we understand the happiness of the merciful?

The first answer is that acts of mercy promote human solidarity, although they are not done with that motive. Those who are forgiven are often enabled to form loyal and merciful relationships with others including those whom they have wronged. Those who are cared for often desire to show similar care to others. To be part of such a process of mercy is a genuine happiness, evident in first Christian assembly described in Acts 2 and 4, but also for example in the Buddhist Community of Plum Village in France or in the many groups of addicts who follow a 12 -step programme. This is in no way a smug happiness of conscious virtue, but rather a determination that neither past wrongs or present needs should inhibit the pleasure of being alive, with others.

The second answer is to do with the response of God. Jesus taught a shocking reciprocity between human and divine behaviour: forgive as our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Surely Jesus was not saying that God would allow his actions to be determined by human beings! It seems disgraceful, yet he went out of his way to assert it: “for if you do not forgive others, neither will your father in heaven forgive you.”  But this is no more than the obvious fact that those who condemn others will not inagine that they need forgiveness, nor will they trust in any teaching about God’s mercy to sinners, so they are already half- way to hell and in need of rescue. The same is true of those who exercise no compassion towards the needy. They will never imagine that they are in need of God’s compassion. Those who exercise mercy, however, will seek it from those whom they have wronged and from God if they are believers. They will trust in human and divine forgiveness, and will know the happiness of living in a climate of mercy.

And if that happiness were to catch  a hard-hearted person unawares, even just for an hour, or maybe even a minute, it might turn them towards the mercy they have despised.

Of course Jesus was promising an eternal mercy: in the world to come, in the Rule of God, mercy will be offered by God and the merciful will be able to receive it; kindness will be offered and the kind will be able to receive it. Jesus had such respect for human choice, that he could not imagine even the merciful father overuling the choices his children had made. Perhaps we can only say of the unmerciful, that God will wait for them to turn. But the merciful, even if their sins are as heavy as mine, will know mercy and be happy.

 

This series of blogs is devoted to exploring the blessings of Jesus set out in Matthew chapter 5 which I translated three blogs ago. Today I am looking at the fourth blessing:

Happiness for those who hunger and thirst for justice:

they will be satisfied.

Most of these blessings sound paradoxical; indeed in this case it seems perfectly obvious that justice- seekers are rarely satisfied, and that the more comprehensive the justice sought, the less likely it is to be found. Often people who have sought and obtained a limited justice go on to tackle greater and greater injustices, as for example Ghandi, who from his beginnings as an opponent of racism in South Africa tackled the greater problems of colonial rule in India, and was still working for social justice when he was killed. Was he satisfied? It seems that if we say he was satisfied we deny the continuing, burning commitment to radical justice which makes him important.

If we can ask the question about Ghandi then we can also ask it about Jesus, who proclaimed the arrival of God’s justice in his own ministry yet died on a Roman execution stake, as the victim of a Jewish kangaroo court. Was Jesus satisfied? Some Gospels mitigate the savage irony of Jesus’ death with pious utterances, which do not ring as true as the cry of anger accusing God of desertion that we read in Mark and Matthew. Even if we doubt all versions of Jesus’ last words, we can admit that John’s “It is finished” is probably meant to tease the reader into some recognition of Jesus’ satisfaction.

In this context I always think of something I once read in a newspaper and half-remember:

A TV company had sent a reporter, cameraman and driver into an African famine zone to get firsthand reports. The truck they used smacked into a huge boulder, wrecking the stearing and spilling the team out into the sand. At first, because of the heat they were glad to see the sun going going down, but afterwards, in intense cold, getting no phone signal, stood and shouted for help, although they could see nobody. Thinking they might freeze to death, they huddled together and waited. Out of complete darkness some men approached them, signalling them to follow. After an hour’s walk they found themselves in a small tribal settlement, where women attended to their wounds and bruises, before leading them to a warm shelter, where at last, they could sleep.

In the morning the headman of the village told them that they had very little food, because of the famine. Some of their number had already died of malnutrition. He apologised that they could not feed their guests as they would have wished, but invited them to share what they had. The tribe gathered in a circle, perhaps some thirty people including children. In the middle was a large wooden board, on to which families placed what food they had: a few tubers, some animal bones, one bit of something like bread. The headman blessed the food, broke it up, and passed it round. Each person had a morsel of tuber, a lick of marrow,a crumb of bread, except the children and nursing mothers who had double.

The journalist wrote that he had never experienced such absolute justice, nor had he ever felt so completely satisfied.

This incident is the best commentary I know on the so-called feeding of the 5000 by Jesus, where a body of people shares the little it has, yet all are satisfied. The explanation of the mystery is that every step towards justice is just, just as every step towards peace is peaceful. And every step is also a foretaste of the final justice promised by God, so that in addition to the present instance of justice, there is the prospect of something complete. The faithful person can be happy in the present instance of justice confident that more is to come. Martin Luther King the day before his assassination spoke of his happiness that he had climbed the mountain and seen the promised land: mine eyes, he said, have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Yeah, maybe that makes sense for the great activists and saints, but what about the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the despised and rejected of our world, who may not have any chance to do more than long for justice, for whom there is only the longing without any instance of justice? For them the happiness is knowing that in God’s time they will receive recompense for all their grief, while their persecutors will get justice for their evil.

Surely I’m not meaning heaven and hell? Yes, better believe it, I sure am. But does God not forgive all sinners? No, God offers forgivness to all, but only those who are sorry for their evil can receive it; the rest remain in the darkness they have chosen. Some modern theologians dismiss this view of justice as primitive and in any case, beyond our knowledge, but I insist that unless I can trust in the justice of God for the oppressed of the earth, I cannot believe or worship.

There is every evidence in the Gospels that Jesus knew the present happiness of small justice achieved, while risking his life for the greater justice to come. His blessing issues from experience.

 

My last two blogs have explored the first two beatitudes or blessings of Jesus as reported in Matthew Chapter 5. The third of Jesus’ blessings is hard to translate. I have given it as:

Happiness for the gentle;

they will possess the Land.

The KJV has:

blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth

The word “praeis” is found in the Greek Old Testament at Psalm 37:11 where it translates the original Hebrew “anawim” which means afflicted, poor, God- fearing. Perhaps it’s not very different from the first blessing on “those who demand no power over others”, with in this case an emphasis on not demanding/ not having land. Every person in Israel was meant to inherit some of the land given by God. Powerful people, however , grabbled land for themselves. Gentle people might often end up landless.

The verb “ kleronomesousin” in Greek does have the sense of inheriting, that is, possessing what God has given. It does not mean only a legal right, more a social fact. The Greek “gey”can mean the earth, but here it is probably a reference to ”eretz yisrael”, the promised land.

So, how can the dispossessed, landless, gentle people “possess the land.”? The answer is in Jesus’ words to his disciples ( Mark 10: 29) that those who have given up family, houses, fields, to follow him will receive these gifts back tenfold in the shared life of the assembly of Jesus, where possession is communal. The gentle people are ready for this sharing which brings great human wealth and happiness. There is a future dimension to this blessing but Jesus knows that the happiness starts now, even in the midst of dispossession and poverty, where gentle people trust his word.

Those who are not gentle, but are ready to grab the land and its resources for themselves, are not happy, for the price of this kind of possession is insecurity, vigilance and the threat of violence. But if any such accept Jesus’ teaching, they will find themselves welcomed by the sharing assemblies, and will be converted by the happiness of possessing nothing yet posessing everything – as St. Paul puts it, “penniless, we own the world!”

So, the blessing is fulfilled already even in the midst of a greedy society where the rich and ruthless “possess”the land. But more is promised which has not yet arrived: The assemblies of Jesus offer a fuller measure of shared life, but they are in turn only a foretaste of the life of God’s Rule, which will come one day.

The Assembly where I minister at present has a drop-in free cafe twice a week for anyone who wants food and company. Those who attend have suffered multiple deprivations, but are ready to welcome me with grace and humour. They have very little but they know how to share. There are many sorrows in their lives but they know the happiness of shelter, warmth, food, affection and dignity. Many religious assemblies in this city provide something similar, and are committed jointly to creating a more just society.

I can see and experience the truth of Jesus’ blessing in these communities, but it is a revolutionary teaching in a society like Scotland, where so much land is in the hands of the idle aristocracy or has been increasingly grabbed by very rich institutions and individuals. Land which might well provide a living for refugees or homes for the poor, is being used for the various forms of killing which delight the powerful. This does not justify any violent expropriation of those who own too much of our common inheritance, but it would justify gentle people insisting on electing a government that would very gently pass land reform laws to bring back into public control and for public benefit, land that has been alienated by unfettered capitalism and medieval privilege.

Meanwhile faithful disciples should model themselves on the Assembly described in Acts chapters 2 and 4 which allowed gentle people to possess “the land” together.